Friday, December 08, 2006

Subdividing "Subdivisions"

been on sort of a Rush kick of late. that's not so weird, considering that over the past ten years or so, there's probably no band i've listened to more. in particular, i've been obsessing over "Subdivisions," definitely one of my favorite Rush songs and one of the single greatest drumming performances i know. it's certainly not the flashiest Neil Peart specimen out there--it's actually probably one of the most subtle and tasteful. the more i listen to it and break it down, the more i realize what a genius that dude is. i'm not sure there's ever been a rock drummer who composed their parts more meticulously or thoughtfully.

anyway, yeah, it's sort of this received-knowledge notion that Yeah, Rush are great musicians, Peart is a drummer's drummer, all that sort of crap. i guess i'd counter that with another cliche, which is that the playing always serves the songwriting, and "Subdivisions" is a great example of that. the song is based around this pretty repetitive seven-beat keyboard figure that keeps coming back throughout and Peart just has a blast with the rhythm--he actually constructs an entirely different beat for each verse and the variations are fascinating. i sorta have this dorky theory--though knowing Peart, i wouldn't put this past him at all--that this variation idea is supposed to tie in w/ the lyrics of the song, which are essentially about how the cookie-cutter nature of the suburbs kills teenagers' dreams and punishes nonconformity. it's all put pretty dramatically, but as someone who grew up in the suburbs, i actually find it really sad and affecting. anyway, so my theory is that by playing a different drum part each time that vamp-ish figure comes back, Peart is symbolizing the rebellious adolescent railing against the stifling nature of the 'burbs. alright, alright, you can stop laughing now. i can't believe i'm writing this either...

anyway, so yeah, the drum part kills and i've been checking it out nonstop for a little while now. having a day off from work today, i decided to go in to the practice space with my CD player and nifty earplug-style headphones and try to play along with the recording and learn Peart's part, or at least an approximation of it. i got about halfway through today and had a blast. again, the part is really not about dexterity so much as intricacy.

i found this really cool video of a live performance of "Subdivisions" where the camera stays on Peart the whole time. i encourage you to check that out and watch a master at work. the viddy is down at the bottom, but here's a few things to look out for:

so, this variation thing i'm talking about... basically Peart breaks each verse into two parts. for the first part he plays this very laid-back backbeat sort of thing, but then halfway through he'll kick into one of these souped-up beats. in the first verse, this happens right when Geddy is singing "in geometric order"--Peart gets into this sick syncopated thing that ends w/ two open hi-hat hits. [REVISION: so i doubt anyone woulda cried foul, but the aforementioned description is wrong; this beat doesn't end in two hi-hat hits, but rather two quick snare hits and one open hi-hat hit. i do, however, stand by what i said about it being "sick" and "syncopated." carry on.] this starts at 1:03 in the video below.

the second verse (right after the first, before the first chorus) is my favorite: instead of the backbeat thing at the start of the verse, Peart does this holding pattern thing, with constant bass-drum thumps and eighth notes on the hi-hat. then Geddy says "Growing up it all seems so one-sided," and right at the end of that phrase, Peart plays a triplet on the snare and then just gets seriously funky, playing this beat that's related to what he does in the first verse, but takes twice as long to repeat. if you sped this up, it'd make an absolutely killer dance beat--one to rival those classic James Brown grooves. anyway, you'll find this at 1:25.

the drum part for the third verse is equally sick, but very different. instead of syncopating, Peart plays right along with the keyboard vamp and gets this stiff, staccato effect. (this starts at 2:54.) on the fourth go-round of this groove, he leaves the staccato beat behind and plays this completely brain-scrambling fill that will sort of make you go, "What the fuck?" i simply cannot listen to this song without rewinding this part like 20 times. (the fill happens at 2:59 on the video.) i don't even know how to describe this fill other than in abstract terms--it sounds like a sort of sentence fragment, like Peart's starting to speak a complete thought but just hits a wall; it's just this little stutter of a fill, almost inelegant and squashed into the rhythm, but it's so beautiful in its quizzicalness. again, though, it's pretty much impossible to grab on the fly so prepare to rewind a bunch. (or don't, and just enjoy what a beautiful song "Subdivisions" is! that's the great thing about Rush: they always reward close listening but don't really implore it.)

[REVISION: how could i forget the fourth verse?!? it's here that Peart straightens out the beat into this driving, straight-ahead rock thing, a really cool effect after all the sort of darting, funky stuff that he pulls in the other verses. this variation begins at 3:16 in the viddy.]

anyway, just a couple more highlights i wanted to point out, one of which is the fill that leads from the post-chorus ("Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth / But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth"--you're tellin' me, Neil) to the post-post-chorus. you'll find this at 2:17. Peart does a quick four-beat snare roll and then five staggered bass/cymbal crashes, four with the right hand and the last one with both hands. this is just the most killer fill and watching him do it this morning, i actually caught myself yelling at the screen, "God, you're motherfucking brilliant" or something like that. it's just poetry to behold.

another thing is the stuttery ride pattern that Peart plays on both the post-chorus and the post-post-chorus (the latter part is really like a keyboard solo sort of thing). Peart sort of plays a backbeat with the bass and snare while doing this kind dancey syncopated thing on the ride. this is totally a Peart trademark and he does it in a million Rush songs--there's a great spin on this type of thing in "Red Barchetta--but this is particularly strong example, filled with all kinds of cool fills that weave in and out of the beat. watch the right hand starting at about 2:20 and you'll hear the ride cymbal pattern.

anyway, sorry for all the dorky technical talk, but i have to say that analyzing Neil Peart's drum parts is one of the most pleasurable and rewarding listening experiences i know. so yeah, i'm sure you've heard that the dude can play, but next time you hear Rush, just try to geek out a little and notice the intricacies--he absolutely never disappoints.

a ps to this would be, does anyone actually know how his name is pronounced? there seems to be some dispute over whether it's "Peert" or "Pert." anyway, hail the dude either way, and here's that video i've been yapping about:

18 comments:

Mike Parker said...

Wow! Man, what a treat to read this!

What I love most about his rhythms on this track (my all-time favorite Rush track and I love basically everything they've ever done!) is that they've always felt simple to me. I never really noticed until recently how ridiculously complicated they are--not being a musician I never thought about it. There is a consistent "four on the floor" feeling to the whole thing, but at the same time it always feels "off", which is of course what gets me off! (cf. Tipographica!!!!) It's so subtle and different from the flashier, busier style that was more common in the 70s (for Peart and most others), which I love too, but that subtle offness just destroys me. I hear the same thing in the classic 80s work by Bill Connors, which had devastating rhythm sections.

That topic aside, the song has continued to have a huge emotional impact on me for years. Your theory about the variations and the lyrics is a beautiful idea, but one way or another, those lyrics really do have an impact. I mean, I can detach myself and see them as naive and cliched at worst, or simply irrelevant to an adult (I'm 30 now!) at best, but the same is true of a lot of great lyrics. It's not that I really identify with them personally that much (well, a little because I was an angst-ridden suburban youth too), but that they're genuinely poetic and perfectly constructed for the context of a song.

Really, everything is pretty much perfect about the song. It's devastating at every level.

Thanks for writing all this stuff about the drumkit parts, Hank! I'll have to re-read it while listening along sometime soon!

I was really KILLING it on my air drumkit this morning when I had "Subdivisions" cranked. Whoa.

One more thing. The song is so FUCKING HEAVY. I mean sonically. Ecstatically heavy accents.

p.s. I never saw your blog before! Wow, tons of stuff in the archives I'll have to browse through sometime...

pete said...

Dig it. Dig it hard. I've never noticed before how Peart changes the beat for EVERY VERSE--thanks for pointing that out. One of the things that makes that second verse so funky are the snare ghost notes--like Chester Thompson or somebody. The lyric there is "detached and subdivided," and that is just what Peart's doing with the beat.

On a broader note, check out how hooked up Geddy and Neil are on this. They play a lot of their fills together, which is not news to anyone, but it's still amazing to hear. And they did this a lot. "Freewill" comes to mind. T

here was a time when I was listening to Rush a lot and lots of jazz, and I just sort of assumed that all three of those guys were amazing improvisers and that's what makes their music so good, but then I really started to listen to the forms and fills (Geddy and Neil), etc., and I came to this even deeper appreciation for what they do. They're not exactly innovate improvisers, but amazing stuff is happening rhythmically and melodically all the time at every level of the music, and they do it together. Improvised or no, it's still sick.

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